by Mavis Shinn Turner
[Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the memoirs of Mavis Shinn Turner, who came to the Mississippi Delta in 1939 from a small town near Charlotte, North Carolina. She had been hired by the Methodist Church to work with rural churches in the Mississippi Delta. Although she had worked in the cotton mills of North Carolina, this was her first job with the church . . . ]
I rode to Atlanta on the train and visited with my college roommate, Elizabeth Thompson, who lived in Decatur, Georgia. I then went on to Memphis and down to Clarksdale on the bus. I was met at the station in Clarksdale by Mrs. Ratliff, who was president of the North Mississippi Womenís Society of Christian Service (WSCS). She took me to her home at Sherard and we had lunch. Later she drove me to Cleveland to meet Marjorie Jacks and there I picked up the car I was to use and she led the way to Sunflower Plantation where I was to work. I stayed in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gwin Cox. This was on a government resettlement project. Each family had a new house and about 40 acres of land.
Coming to the Mississippi Delta in 1939 was like coming to a foreign land. The flat land was entirely new to me as I had always lived in hills or mountains. Every turnrow looked the same and I got lost the first time I tried to find my way back to the Coxes. Farming in the Delta was on a bigger scale and different from what I had known. There was a distinction between planter and sharecropper that was new. In North Carolina most of the farmers were small land owners whose family did the farm work. Here I was introduced to the Old South where the Civil War wounds were still painful and the Negro-White relationship still carried some of the slave-master traits. Sunflower Plantation was all white though, and it was with these people that we tried to start a church and work with the young people. Looking back I see how God provided and led and protected me. I made some good friends on the Plantation, but it was the Baptists who later came in and started a permanent church.
Living about two miles north of this center was a young farmer, Ruel Turner, who had a farm south of Malvina and sometimes stopped at the small store near the community center for a ďCokeĒ on his way from farm to farm. He had been introduced to me by Mrs. Dorroh when he came to her house for the Sunday paper on Sunday morning (her boys sold the paper). On one momentous occasion when he stopped for a Coke he asked me to go to the movies with him. We had our first date on March 13, 1941, which was his 30th birthday. We went to Cleveland to the Ellis Theater. I canít remember the name of the film but I can remember new Highway 8 was under construction. That was the beginning of much togetherness. In fact I donít know how he ever got his crop in that year, but he did and made a good one. Anyway in July we had to make a decision. I was to be moved to a new work in the coal fields of West Virginia after my vacation in August. I was working under the auspices of the Womenís Missionary Society and appointments were made at the conference. Ruel went to North Carolina with me when my vacation started and met my folks. We decided to get married in September and I resigned my job.
Ruel and a friend, Ray Mitchell, came to North Carolina for the wedding. We were married before a full house (at the same church where my parents had married) on September 27, 1941, a little over six months after we met. After the wedding we went south for a honeymoon to Charleston, SC; Jacksonville and Marietta, Florida; Biloxi, Mississippi, then on home. Cotton harvest was in full swing and the fields were all white.
Perhaps I should back up and tell how Ruel happened to be in the Delta. His father had been a farmer in Calhoun County, Mississippi. When Ruel was about 13 they moved from the farm to Calhoun City where he opened a hardware store. One of the reasons for the move was so the children could have a better chance at an education and possibly so Mr. Turner would have less strenuous work. He was 40 years old when he married.
In the Depression he lost the store and in the spring of 1931 they moved to the Delta to become sharecroppers. The Delta had more promise as farming land, but also he was thinking that Cleveland showed promise for the childrenís education. Ruel was a senior in high school that year and he stayed in Calhoun City to finish school when the family moved. They lived first on the bayou north of Cleveland, but later moved to Rosedale and Malvina where they were living in 1941. Their father had died in 1936 so the farming fell on Ruel and Hiram. They had started to buy a piece of land south of Malvina which they worked with the rented land where they lived. Farm work was still done mostly with mules and hand labor. Work was from dawn to dark, and keeping people on the job wasnít easy. Ruel was a good farmer though, and he knew if he didnít make a good crop not only his family but many others would suffer.
Ruel always regretted not having gone to college. Iím sure if he would have gone to college he would have become a coach, for he loved football. Anyway he came along at a time when money was scarce and also at a time when his family needed him to carry the load. He said he and a friend hitch-hiked to Moorhead to see about getting in at the small Junior College but they didnít have the few dollars to enroll. Ruelís role as head of the family Iím sure affected him in many ways. It made him mature before his time and also caused him to miss some things young people need in growing up.
The definite break he knew he must make when we got married wasnít easy. His family couldnít see his need to live his own life apart from them, but he knew at age 30 the time had come. Their dependency on him for 10 years had become ingrained. They felt he was thoughtless and not caring. It caused hard feelings the rest of his life, but he told me it was something he knew he must do. He had been a father figure when he should have still been a son and brother.
Just after we moved in the house I found I was pregnant, and the threat of Ruel being drafted into military service became a danger, increasing as the year wore on. After the 1942 crop was gathered, his brother Hiram had to go but Ruel was deferred as a farmer - at least temporarily. We didnít know what would happen next.
Mavis Shinn Turner died in 1999, but she left a treasure for her family -- a long, beautiful memoir and a stack of letters written from 1933 to 1959. The piece above ("The Delta") was taken from her memoir. To read more of her stories and her letters, please visit Joe Lee Turner's web site.
Please direct all questions and comments to Joe Lee Turner, Mavis Turner's son, who resides in North Carolina. Contact Joe Lee by writing him at jlt1945.
"Stories from the Mississippi Delta" by Billy Tom (Bubba) Lusk
Back to USADEEPSOUTH - II index page